New Administrative Office of Courts director replaced top employees with Republican loyalists on his first day

By: - January 11, 2021 2:00 pm

Image: Adobe Stock

Five employees asked to resign with just a few hours’ notice

[This story has been updated — see below.]

Last Friday, within hours of being appointed by State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby as the head of a key judicial office, Andrew Heath began purging it of some career employees.

As new Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) director, Heath forced top senior employees to resign with only a few hours’ notice and replaced them with Republican loyalists, including the daughter of a conservative appellate judge.

According to state records from the Office of the Controller and LinkedIn profile updates, these employees were among those who were forced to resign: 

McKinley Wooten, Jr. served as the director of the AOC and was the first African-American to serve in that position. Wooten had been a state employee since 1992.

Danielle Carman became the deputy director in 2019 after Wooten was appointed to the position on a permanent basis by then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Carman had worked for state government since 1997. Beasley lost to Newby in the 2020 General Election by a just a few hundred votes

Tina Krasner, former general counsel, provided legal advice to judicial officials and staff, according to her LinkedIn profile. She had held that post since June 2019. Krasner had 26 years of service in state government.

Mildred Spearman was the head of the Organizational Learning and Development Division. She began working for the state in 2001.

Andrew Simpson became the Chief Counsel for Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs in 2019. Simpson had been a state employee for nearly three years. 

Under state law, these employees were all “at will,” similar to a governor’s cabinet appointees — a classification that allowed them be terminated any time. But rarely does the professional guillotine drop this quickly. Sources told Policy Watch that all five employees were asked to leave, and logged out of their computers within hours. Many of these career employees had also served under a Republican, former Chief Justice Mark Martin. State campaign finance records show that some of the five who resigned contributed to former Chief Justice Beasley’s campaign, other Democratic candidates or ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising group. Krasner had contributed to Martin’s campaign in 2014. 

An internal memo from the AOC obtained by Policy Watch names the newcomers — two white men and a white woman who recently graduated from college and had limited experience in administrative roles within the judicial branch. 

Only Ryan Boyce had previously worked for the AOC. He will lead Court Programs and Services as well as Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, essentially combining Carman’s and Simpson’s previous responsibilities. Boyce was a regular contributor to former Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign, and donated $200 to Heath’s failed campaign for the state court of appeals in 2018 and $1,000 to Newby’s in 2019. Boyce had also served as General Counsel for State Superintendent of Public Instruction under its controversial former chief, Mark Johnson.

Trey Allen, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government professor will be the General Counsel at AOC. He used to clerk for Justice Newby.

Alexis Berg, whom Heath hired as his executive assistant, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2020, according to her LinkedIn profile. She’s the daughter of Court of Appeals Judge Republican April Wood and listed herself as the manager of Wood’s political campaigns. Wood filled retired judge Wanda Bryant’s seat and took office earlier this month. 

Heath did not respond last Friday to Policy Watch’s request for comments on his new leadership and court reopening plans. He also did not return calls and email this morning. 

Sharon Gladwell, AOC communication directors, said in an email this morning that those with knowledge of this matter could not immediately answer questions posed by Policy Watch.

[Note: After this story was published, Policy Watch received an email from Gladwell defending the changes. It stated that “Each new NCAOC administration makes adjustments in leadership. After winning a state-wide election, Justice Newby should be expected to bring with him a leadership team consistent with his vision, as other state leaders have routinely done in the past.” 

It went on to defend the qualifications and racial makeup of the new AOC leadership team, stating that: “Among the few new NCAOC hires is a wealth of judicial and NCAOC experience and a history of working well with members of the COVID-19 Task Force.” 

The email continued: “Under Chief Justice Newby and Director Heath, hiring decisions will not be made based on an individual’s demographics, including but not limited to race. NCAOC will continue to reflect a workforce of diverse and talented individuals.”]

Apart from being highly desirable, well-paid jobs (state salary data show that previous position-holders were paid close to or more than $100,000 annually), these high-level judicial branch positions command significant influence — both over how the court system interacts with other governmental branches and how North Carolinians interact with the court system.

Meanwhile, the fired AOC employees not only lost their jobs, but many relied on the state healthcare and retirement benefits, which could be negatively affected by their shortened years of services.

The toll is not only personal but institutional, too. None of the officials who resigned had time to train incoming employees and ensure a smooth transition for the new leadership, especially at a time when Chief Justice Newby has demanded courts be open during the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said is a “constitutional mandate.”

Newby was sworn in by Heath on Jan. 1, 2021, at home. One day after his formal Jan. 6 investiture, the conservative North State Journal reported Heath had been tabbed as the director of AOC — a day before the formal announcement last Friday. 

Heath was a three-time appointee of former Gov. Pat McCrory: as director of the Office of State Budget and Management from 2016 to 2017, a special superior court judge in 2016, and the chairman of the Industrial Commission in 2013.

A campaign donor to McCrory, Heath did not shy away from politics. His campaign ad for a failed bid for the Court of Appeals, narrated by former Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, presented him as the “independent conservative who applies the law fairly and equal to all.”

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Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu, Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter, came to Policy Watch in December of 2020 from the Investigative Reporting Workshop in D.C., where she combined data and reporting to cover public accountability issues. Yanqi graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2019. Her multimedia work appeared in PolitiFact and the Columbia Missourian, and was featured on the local NPR and NBC affiliates. Originally from China, Yanqi started her career producing newscasts to tell people what’s going on around the world.